Why Did Modern Russia Turn Into An Authoritarian State: Was It Putin Or The People?
It is a mistake to attribute the construction of authoritarianism in modern Russia to Putin alone. Serhiy Gromenko, an expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, explains the evolution for how Russia wound up an authoritarian state, and why Putin isn't the only one to blame.
Not so long ago, the republic of Russia was among the freest of the Soviet Union's 15 republics. Apart from the always separate Baltic states, Russia in the late 1980s was home to the most potent dissident movements, and the fiercest struggle between progressives and those more aligned with the Soviet Union.
Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.Sign up to our free daily newsletter.
The largest and most critical anti-Soviet rallies and mass protests took place on the streets of Moscow. Paradoxically, Russians enjoyed the greatest freedom of thought and relatively moderate pressure from the KGB. "For what they cut your nails in Moscow, they cut off your hand in Kyiv" was a common expression at the time.
Interestingly, for some time after the final collapse of the USSR, it was Russia that led the decommunization movement, with the banning of the Communist party, renaming of cities and opening of secret archives. The Kremlin has officially recognized the existence of secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the non-aggression agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed just before the Second World War) and the Soviet Union's guilt in the murder of tens of thousands of Polish prisoners of war during the Katyn massacre.
Political life in Russia was booming and raging, often literally. An unprecedented level of political competition, genuine federalism and assets inherited from the USSR, as well as positions in the world all played in Moscow's favor. Perhaps not the wealthiest country, but still a respected and promising country, with a high level of freedom — this is how it was seen from the outside and inside.
It is strange to see today's Russia — rigidly authoritarian, hostile to the whole world, with rapid degradation of almost all spheres of life. And on top of that, Orthodox-Communist-Nazi rhetoric comes from the mouths of the highest leadership.
As early as 1992, former U.S. President Richard Nixon and leading Soviet expert Richard Pipes warned about the danger of restoring dictatorship in Russia. In 1995, the emigrant historian Alexander Yanov wrote a book called Weimar Russia, which predicted the return of authoritarianism. So when did these prophecies come true?
In their attempts to guess the time of the "wrong turn," analysts most often mentioned 1999/2000 (the Second Chechen War), 2007/2008 (Putin's speech in Munich rejecting the post-Cold War order, and the subsequent Russian invasion of Georgia) and 2012-2014 (mass protests after Putin's election to a third presidential term, and the invasion and annexation of Crimea).
After the Soviet collapse
In short, these are the milestones of Putin's presidency. Without denying the importance of these particular dates, the concept as a whole should be revised.
I am convinced that it was not Putin who seduced Russia, but the Russian people at heart who gave birth to and supported Putin. He manipulates the public consciousness like a talented conductor, but ordinary people play the orchestra's instruments.
In fair presidential elections, Putin would get 50-55% — not just because he has killed or expelled all possible competitors, but also because many ordinary Russians believe his nonsense about the West, "traditional family values" and Ukraine.
Thus, it was not Putin who, having seized a prosperous country, turned it into a real-life Mordor, from JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. No — he ascended to power precisely because Russian society in 1999 was already profoundly sick and ready to surrender to a dictator.
History shows similar cases in Italy, Germany and Portugal. Economic collapse, disillusionment with democracy and the lure of populism have brought many tyrants to power. Russia is no exception. But if Putin is a symptom, not a disease, who is the virus?
President Boris Yeltsin handing the Presidential Emblem to Vladimir Putin in 1999.
Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikicommons
Boris Yeltsin's role
Coming from the bureaucratic shadows, Boris Yeltsin challenged the top leadership and the system itself — and then, relying on genuine popularity, emerged victorious. He contributed to the collapse of the USSR and recognized Ukraine's independence. He had every chance to go down in history as a knight in shining armor.
Yeltsin sold Russia to the KGB for guarantees for himself and his family.
But it didn't take long to go from victory over the dragon to transformation into another kind of dragon. In the fall of 1993, the presidential forces stormed the opposition parliament. I'm not defending the gang of communist Nazis who denied that Crimea belonged to Ukraine and declared Sevastopol a Russian city. It's just that history teaches us that the parliament should defeat the king and not vice-versa.
Having won that miniature civil war, Yeltsin rewrote the constitution, becoming an uncrowned monarch (a "super-presidential republic"). In essence, Russia reached the first fork in the road, turning from the road to democracy and onto the road to authoritarianism. The immediate consequences of Yeltsin's victory, which at the same time cemented its outcome, were the First Chechen War of 1994 and the 1996 presidential election, which was marked by incredible media manipulation and fraud.
Yeltsin was well aware that defeat would be his sentence for the massacres in Moscow and Grozny, so he resorted to using administrative resources and made a deal with the oligarchs to cement his victory over Gennady Zyuganov, which marked Russia's final merger of power and capital.
By the way, Putin's appointment is entirely the responsibility of the Yeltsin Family. It was the last logical and almost inevitable stage in the development of early Russian authoritarianism. Yeltsin sold Russia to the KGB for guarantees for himself and his family.
Boris Yeltsin welcomed by a crowd on a visit to Belgorod, Russia, in 1996.
ITAR-TASS via Wikicommons
The money factor
The election of Putin as president — with his secret police and gangster background — made the future path inevitable. The evidence is the crimes of the first years of his rule, the inhuman indifference to the population (the Kursk submarine disaster, the 2002 Moscow theatre siege and the Beslan massacre) and the return of some Soviet state symbols.
Let them not blame Putin alone. After all, Russians turned to the path of disaster long before him.
The macroeconomic situation sped up the process. From the very beginning of 1999 until almost the end of 2008, global oil prices rose at an unprecedented rate. Even the Arab oil war against the West in the 1970s did not cause such a rapid price rise.
And Putin was one of the primary beneficiaries of this process. Having crushed the opposition media in record time and "nationalized" the oil and gas sector, Putin became the controller of huge funds. There was so much money that it was enough for everything, including the world's most expensive yachts and handouts to the population. Never in 500 years had the average Russian lived as well as in early Putin's years of reign.
And this ultimately played a cruel joke on Russia. If this incredible oil wealth had not been there, and if it had been necessary to adopt to a greater extent the international division of labor and give more economic freedoms to people, authoritarianism in Russia might have been different. But the ability to squander money left and right, and to maintain tens of millions of paternalistic state employees, set the Kremlin on the path of rigid authoritarianism.
The Munich speech of 2007 confirmed the way — Russia finally and irrevocably set a course for the past.
When protests began after his 2011 re-election, Putin became afraid of repeating Gaddafi's fate and began to tighten the screws. It led to the invasion of Crimea and Donbas, and later to Syria. Although the Western reaction was more serious this time, Putin still believed he had outplayed everyone.
Finally, two years of isolation in a bunker distorted his worldview so much that he made the suicidal decision to invade Ukraine. The regime's turn toward the past has become absolute and inevitable.
Now, the machine has lost control and is crashing into the abyss. Russia's defeat is already a fait accompli. The only question is when the Kremlin and the last Russian will realize this. And then, while clearing the rubble at the crash site, let them not blame Putin alone. After all, Russians turned to the path of disaster long before him.